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Q. Our firm traditionally has done very well in recruiting lawyers and students who interview with us. We still do quite well with law students and lateral associates, but have failed in the past year to land a number of lateral partner candidates we really wanted.

We also have had a few significant washouts with lateral partners. It has caused us to at least ask the question of whether we should be focusing on some different things in the partner interview process. Any thoughts you have in this regard would be most appreciated.

This is an especially timely question, as the fall is still prime time for lateral partner recruiting. The discordant results your firm has seen between its associate and partner-recruiting efforts is actually not that uncommon. Firms pour enormous resources into their summer- and lateral-associate recruiting endeavors. The hiring committees that spearhead those efforts normally have a chairperson who oversees the process and have members who have clearly defined roles.

Moreover, the core interviewing team also receives some type of training as to how to conduct an interview and the messages that the firm hopes to convey. Laying such a foundation for a unified approach with a group of prepared lawyers is a recipe for success.

It is a surprise, then, considering the importance of lateral partner recruiting to most firms that many depart from the successful approach used with associates. Even though some of the same hiring committee members may participate at some point in a lateral partner’s recruitment, many others necessarily are brought into the mix. This stems from the reality that the recruitment of most partners is much more practice dependent.

Thus, a partner’s recruitment drills much deeper into the pool of lawyers in a department, and encompasses some partners who are not enmeshed in the associate-recruiting process. While some of these partners may be excellent lawyers, they often can be substandard interviewers, as they may have received little interview training, do not know the global message that the firm is trying to impart to a lateral, and could be prone to go off topic to disclose information that may be flat-out wrong or is injurious to the recruiting process.

An additional complication is that, unlike the well-oiled associate recruiting machine, the partner-recruiting vessel often runs aground as no one is at the helm to steer it. Recruiting coordinators and some executive directors often would be happy to lead the effort, but normally are given very limited authority in the process and are kept in the dark at key stages. So, too, with many hiring partners, whose are not commensurate with the role they actually play with lateral-partner candidates. The process calls out for a “champion” to drive the effort, which is what tends to happen, at least by default, in firms that succeed in this realm.

With that backdrop, I offer these suggestions. First, critically assess your associate efforts and try, as much as possible, to replicate that approach with partners. Even though each recruitment may have a particular champion, there should still be someone at the top who can help to manage the process. This will aid the candidate, recruiters, and your own lawyers in knowing where the process stands and what is needed to drive it to conclusion. It also behooves the firm to offer training to all partners who may be interviewers as to how to effectively conduct an interview, what the messages are that a firm hopes to deliver, and the type of feedback the firm needs from them in the process.

Second, I offer these specific suggestions for the actual interview process:

Urge lawyers to be prepared.

Partner candidates frequently bristle when it is apparent that their interviewer is scanning their resume or bio for the first time when they sit down for the interview. This shows very little respect for them, wastes valuable time, and sets the stage for a poor interview. A firm should devise a process that ensures that this does not happen, whether that entails e-mailing the resume/bio multiple times, in advance, to the interviewer or even having a five-minute pre-interview meeting, online session, or phone call with the interview team to first discuss the candidate.

Behavioral interviewing techniques.

The traditional chronological, “tell me about yourself” interview has repeatedly proven to not be a good predictor for success. To the extent that your firm believes this is important, designate someone to fulfill that role and let him ask about the one-year gap on a resume, what a candidate’s biggest strength is, and where he wants to be in five years.

Train the rest of your team about more probing interview techniques that are better predictors of how someone would fare if he joined your firm. There are a wealth of materials (and training firms) available in this regard, that can explain top-grading and other behavioral techniques. As to partners, a few key questions of this type include: How did they get their book of business? If it was inherited, what did they do to keep and grow it? If they developed it, what steps did they take to build the practice (who knows – maybe the interviewer will learn something). The answers to these questions are important, as your lawyers should be able to assess whether those techniques will work in your firm.

What type of risks did the partner take in his career and in building his practice? Would that type of risk be tolerated in your firm?

Provide an example of a strategic decision that the partner took with respect to his practice? For example, was he able to see several steps ahead to steer the practice in a new direction, as needed?

Define the interviewer’s role.

Not all interviewers are equal, at least with respect to the role that they should be playing with a particular recruitment. Unfortunately, many do not know this, which can sometimes lead to a partner from another practice group grilling a candidate on specific aspects of his practice when such a role would much better be fulfilled by someone who is in the same practice discipline. Somewhat similarly, a recruitment may be at a stage where the firm is clearly in sell mode, which needs to be communicated to everyone. I have lived through some rather vexing recruitments in which a partner, who fancied himself as a potential 60 Minutes correspondent, embarked on a withering interview (of a partner that his firm desperately wanted) that was tantamount to taking apart a hostile witness in a deposition.

It also is helpful to inform the interview team about topics that are off-limits. Providing a list of taboo questions that might trigger litigation is a slam-dunk for most firms. The trickier area, though, especially with partners, concerns those matters that are more normally left to the management of a firm. Compensation is one rather important example – unless an individual partner has the authority to speak on behalf of the firm as to what it might pay the lateral, make it clear that any such discussion should be deferred to the managing partner, a member of the executive committee or the champion of the search.

Keep it professional.

Parallels to the dating process run deeply in partner recruiting. As such, it is useful to remember the same truisms that hopefully guided you in forming personal relationships. A first interview is not the time to blurt out every key thing you can think about with respect to your firm and to get a bit weak kneed about a candidate who you know would be a great addition. Forming a bond is great and allowing chemistry to surface is terrific, but keep things at that level, especially in the early stages.

Also, tell your lawyers to refrain from telling the candidate that they are going to close the door so that they can really tell them about the firm (warts and all). Interviewers who do form immediate bonds and are prone to reacting impulsively sometimes do this because they want to make sure that a “candidate knows what he would be getting himself into if he joined the firm.” Firms would be surprised how often this happens and I have yet to have a candidate report favorably on such an experience.

FRANK M. D’AMORE is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, www.attycareers.com , a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting, consulting and training firm. He is a former partner in an AmLaw 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at [email protected] .

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